She was manufactured in 1958, and much of her early life is unrecorded. But in 2004, a customer of Gantspeed Engineering, Lincolnshire, England, asked the workshop’s owner, Robert Gant, to find him a right-hand drive Porsche 356A. This customer wanted to try his hand at a bit of classic rallying, and for his very first event, he had entered the 2007 Peking to Paris rally! Well, if you want to learn to swim, there is nothing like diving in at the deep end to start the ball rolling, so to speak.
Robert Gant set to work to source a suitable car and as it happened, a South African right-hand drive 356A project car came up. This was an incomplete car with VW engine and transmission, and so a deal was done and this became the starting point for the project. The body was duly stripped and media blasted back to bare metal, revealing a very rusty bodyshell that told a sad tale of botched repairs over the years. All the rusted sections were cut away and new panels installed, at this stage most of the car was being held together by mole grips. It was at this point that the car received its nickname, Molly Mole Grip, later shortened to Molly, which has stuck with her to this day.
The bodywork was completed and painted and Molly was given a late model Porsche industrial engine in place of the VW unit it had when the project started. This Porsche engine was used as the basis to build a low compression 1720 cc engine, built with endurance in mind and not speed, and able to run on poor quality fuel. A 356 SC transmission was sourced and this was fully rebuilt and adapted to the 356A gear selector mechanism, and the suspension and brake components were prepared for the rigours of the rough roads the car would be subjected to.
Careful consideration was given to the instrument and switch gear layout and the installation of all the navigational aids. Once all of this was decided, a purpose build loom was made and installed with a relay and fuse board panel accessible by the navigator. The electrics were upgraded to a 12-volt system. Additional equipment included the installation of a front-mounted oil cooler, spare voltage regulator on a quick release connector, underbody guards, a roof rack to carry an additional spare, and a long range fuel tank.
Molly was then run in, dyno tested, de-bugged and made ready for her first event, the Peking to Paris rally, a mere 12,247 km from 27 May to 30 June 2007. The rally would pass through eight countries including China, Mongolia, Russia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, and finishing in Paris, France. All was going well with Molly until somewhere in the desert, the engine started to lose power as the air filters had become clogged with sand. It was suggested that the air filters should be removed, but this resulted in a very sick engine as so much desert sand had been ingested! There was little option other than to load Molly on a recovery truck and transport her to a Porsche main dealer in Russia.
Frantic calls to Gantspeed followed, and within a few hours Gantspeed staff were on a flight with enough hand luggage to rebuild the engine! Fortunately, the Porsche main dealer was extremely helpful, keeping the workshop open all night whilst the engine was frantically rebuilt. There was no time for the luxury of a road test, and following a few final adjustments, the crew jumped in and set off at full speed. Molly eventually caught up with the other cars and a trouble-free drive to the finish ensued where she would earn a bronze medal. Perhaps Molly was showing some of the tenacity that the little vintage Porsche would draw on in the years to come.
Shortly afterwards, Molly’s owner moved to Monaco, where a few years of low-level, untroubled daily use lay in store for Molly in her new home. But for Molly, the Peking to Paris rally was just the start, as the little Porsche 356A changed hands in 2010, and what a life she has led since then.
Life for Molly in the UK
Her new owners, David and Julie Harrison, had the car for 12 to18 months without really knowing what to do with it, and any thoughts of classic endurance rallying were not even on the horizon. But it didn’t take long for Team Harrison to be talked into doing their first rally, and over the next ten years, they would subject Molly to the most challenging life one could imagine.
Since taking ownership of the Porsche, David and Julie had competed in the following rallies, completing every single one. These classic endurance rallies have been organised by the: Endurance Rally Association, Rally Round, Historic Endurance Rally Organisation (HERO), Bespoke Rallies, Rally Story, Tour de Force Rallies and the Global Rally Organisation.
|2012||Tiger Rally, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia||5595 km|
|2013||Vintage Cape Horn, Argentina, Chile. Molly won two stage gold medals, and finished 10th overall||6300 km|
|2013||Classic Safari, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia. Molly won a special award as the only car not to need mechanical assistance throughout the whole rally!||9125 km|
|2014||Morocco Rally – Molly was part of the overall winning team||1677 km|
|2015||Icelandic Saga Rally – Molly was 1st in class and won the Concours de comfort et d ’equipment||2090 km|
|2017||Samurai Challenge Rally, Japan, visiting the four main islands of Japan in 23 days. Molly won the world famous Sado Island Cup, finishing 1st in our class and 7th overall. Our car was the only car not to require any mechanical work throughout the rally||4500 km|
|2018||Vietnam to Myanmar and back, 3 February to 12 March, through south Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and finishing in North Vietnam. This was an endurance rally, travelling many roads/tracks never used or even seen by Westerners. Molly had no serious mechanical issues just a brake pipe joint needed tightening||8000 km|
|2019||The Midnight Sun Rally, 25 May to 12 June 2019, starting in Gothenburg in Sweden, then through Finland, driving to Nordkapp Europe (the northernmost point in Europe that can be accessed by car) and finishing in Bergen, Norway. There were no mechanical issues, this was a reliability rally with no competitive stages||5500 km|
|2019||Southern Africa, 29 October to 25 November, starting in Cape Town through South Africa to Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), then through the mountains of Lesotho and finishing in Durban. There were no mechanical issues, this was a reliability rally with no competitive stages||6500 km|
|2012||Molly was invited to be on display at the Goodwood Road Racing Club member’s day, outside Goodwood House|
|2013||Molly was invited to be on display at The Classics at the Castle, Hedingham and was awarded a Vic Elford rosette|
In the past decade, Molly has covered some 61,702 kilometres of competitive endurance rallying, that is one and a half times around the world!
David Harrison’s wife, Julie, is not content with sitting around in her retirement. You can only water the flowers so many times, and read so many books, before boredom sets in. So, here is a little peek into what drives Julie to sit in the passenger seat of a 1958 Porsche 356A, putting herself through the bone-jarring discomfort of thousands of miles…for the enjoyment of it! Seriously…?
I’m not super organised – except on a rally…
I hate getting up early – except on a rally…
I’m not very brave – except on a rally…
Are you getting my drift…?
Driving through lava fields and monkey puzzle tree forests high in the Andes, running for help in a game reserve in Africa after putting the car in a ditch, following tracks in sticky 40ºC heat all day in the Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia hoping we’re not lost, moving rocks and tiptoeing the car round giant potholes in Laos, soaking up the spectacle of cherry blossom at the foot of Mount Fuji, floating in a hot air balloon above Burmese temples. Yes sometimes its super scary, boiling hot, chokingly dusty, freezing cold but I can’t wait for what’s around the corner. There is a thirst for adventure and always a story to tell my family and friends.
When asked what major repairs he had had done to the car during this time, David replied, “Nothing!” After each rally, the car would go back to Gantspeed Engineering, and Robert would take the wheels off, the undertrays off and the car would get thoroughly cleaned. Sometimes the engine would need to be overhauled, but there has been nothing major that has needed replacing. “It has been running pretty much as it was built. We have spent a fair bit of money on her, but it has mostly been preventative. We have never not finished an event!” David added. The car has never had a serious mishap other than on the first event when the dynamo seized.
David recalls when they did a rally down through South America, there were a lot of Americans on the event who had spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on their cars, and almost all of them spent most evenings pulling bits off the car to rebuild or repair them. Up until that point, David and Julie had not had to so much as lift the engine cover. David picks up the story, “The one evening I went out there and lay under the car with a spanner, and banged the exhaust pipe a few times. They came out and said, ‘Look you have got trouble,’ and I just said no I haven’t, I am just trying to join in! So when I went to start the car the next morning, they had managed to get into it and disconnect the HT lead, and it wouldn’t start. I think that car is a testament to Porsche, it has been quite remarkable, it has never let us down.”
However, since returning from her last rally in South Africa, Molly has had her gearbox completely overhauled, along with all the running gear. This was the first time since the SC ‘box has been worked on since it was installed back in 2004, and that is after more than 60,000 kilometres of hard endurance rallying across unimaginable roads all over the world.
When asked if he could mention some memorable moments that stood out for him on his adventures, David replied, “Julie and I were on a stage in the Tiger Rally and I just stopped the car in the middle of the jungle, and I said to her: we are in the middle of a jungle, there are no human beings around us, and we are in a 1958 Porsche – this is just quite extraordinary! That was really a life-changing moment.”
A second moment occurred on a rally in Morocco, Julie wasn’t with me because our grandson was being born, and I was driving on my own when Molly caught fire. There were friends behind me who radioed me and told me that there were flames and smoke coming out of the back. I was on a wooden bridge, so I drove over the bridge and stopped and got the fire extinguisher out and squirted it through the vents of the engine cover. Then another 356 came along and the chap had a fire blanket, so we opened the engine cover and threw the fire blanket in and put out the fire, so the car was saved. We looked around in the engine bay and took the remains of the air filter off on the one side and replaced it with a spare that I had, checked the wiring, then cleaned it as best we could. I got back into the car and started it up, and I did another 1000 km with it and finished the rally!” What had happened is, the outside temperature was 42ºC and the fuel evaporation, David had had his foot flat on the floor just to get the car to go. This had the effect of spitting fuel into the air filter, and a spark had ignited the excess fuel.
Another hair-raising incident occurred on the South American rally, when they crossed the Magellan Strait, often cited as the roughest waters in the world. Theirs was the only ferry to cross that day, and just getting there was a challenge in itself, the road conditions were horrendous as the cars had to travel through snow, ice and mud. The rallyists drove all the way down to the ferry in order to cross over to Tierra del Fuego, and along what is said to be the southernmost paved road in the world, to Ushuaia (Argentina). The cars had to be fitted with special snow tyres for this section of the trip.
This means that Molly has been as far as one can possibly drive southwards, and also as far as you can drive northwards without going to the very tip of Alaska (but make no mistake, that is on the agenda)! The only continent to date not covered by Team Harrison and Molly, is Australia, and that had been on the cards for 2021, but for reasons of the Covid-19 pandemic, those plans had to be shelved.
One of the facts that is simply amazing in all of these global rallies, is that in all of the hard kilometres that Molly has travelled over the last decade, she has had only one puncture. That single puncture occurred in South Africa and they were forewarned that they were likely to suffer a puncture on this one section of road. As predicted, they did pick up a puncture! The 356 is fitted with standard Porsche wheels, and for the South African rally they fitted a hard-walled Continental tyre, but for Iceland Molly was shod with a soft winter compound.
“It is truly remarkable how reliable the car has been in the 60,000-odd kilometres of rallying, because the car has not had one single mechanical issue which has cost it time. But we have to put David’s driving skills and his wife’s navigational and organisational skills into perspective, they have played a big part in this. Julie is one of the only co-drivers who, weeks before the event, gets all the maps out, checks the routes, checks for the controls, stops and hotels, she is just so organised.
“There is nothing special about the engine at all. It is based on what Porsche called industrial engines, and they were based on the Super 90 or 912 bottom end, so they were the last in the line of developments. The cylinders and pistons are Shasta Design giving an engine capacity of 1720 cc. It has low compression because of the low grade fuel in the countries they would be driving in. The engine has got two Weber carbs on it now and it probably develops 110 bhp.
“It is a standard wet sump engine and now has a full-flow system and oil filter with a large oil cooler under the left hand front wheel arch. The oil pipes run from the cooler to the back of the car and connect into the full-flow system. There is a thermostat in that circuit to ensure a good oil temperature. We just use Motul 20/50 mineral classic oil which is specifically formulated for older engines. The car’s standard fuel tank has been replaced with a Porsche period long range tank, which they would use for long-distance races and rallies.”
Talking with David this week, he told me that all rallies were cancelled in 2020 and in 2021, and classic endurance rallying will only start again in 2022. So Molly has sat in the garage for the whole of ’20 and ’21 with nowhere to go, but itching to get back on the endurance trail again. It’s not just Molly who is frustrated, Team Harrison can’t wait to get out there either, and now there is talk of doing a rally in the Himalayas…watch this space!
Thanks to David and Julie Harrison for their help with this feature, and to Robert Gant of Gantspeed Engineering for his help too – Ed.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: David and Julie Harrison